Idaho Says Schools Should Go to Feds for Broadband Discounts

School districts were advised to identify a provider and file for a federal discount called an E-rate "in the event that the state may not be able to provide network services as a state consortium next fiscal year."

by Mary Stone, Lewiston Tribune / January 15, 2015

(TNS) Securing Internet service for their school district independently will be an expensive proposition, but Orofino, Idaho, district officials are preparing to do just that.

With Idaho's state-sponsored network up in the air, the district is one of many expected to put its broadband services out to bid. In Orofino's case, that could cost $9,000 to $10,000 a month, before a federal rebate.

In a letter issued Friday by state officials, school districts were advised to identify a provider and file for a federal discount called an E-rate "in the event that the state may not be able to provide network services as a state consortium next fiscal year."

According to Idaho Education Network spokeswoman Camille Wells, 102 of the state's 115 school districts and 49 charter schools already apply for the federal discount on their own. To qualify for the special rate for 2015, districts must complete an approved bid process by March 26.

The potential financial effect varies depending on how much a district relies on the state network.

Orofino Technology Coordinator Russel Miles said the cost would be difficult for his rural district to absorb, even with a federal rebate of about 80 percent. Orofino depends on the state network for all of its broadband, Miles said.

The letter indicates seeking their own federal discount will help protect districts from losing services.

"While this should not be interpreted as an indication that the network is being dissolved," according to the letter, "we do want to be proactive about ensuring that Idaho school districts are held harmless no matter the outcome of legal or legislative action."

But Miles said that doesn't quite add up.

"If the (Idaho Education Network) changes, it really is impossible to hold us harmless because we'll have to purchase the service they have provided," for free, he said.

The Lewiston School District, which started its bid process earlier this week, uses the network to supplement an agreement with a local provider. The cost for replacing the state-provided service would be about $20,000 a year, Assistant Superintendent Lance Hansen said, before the district's federal rebate of about 70 percent.

Wells said every effort is being made to keep the service afloat.

"We are committed to figuring out how to keep the network services uninterrupted to our schools and to getting E-rate funds for July 2015"," she said.

The state's rebate of approximately 70 percent from the federal government has been withheld since 2013 because of questions about how the contract for the broadband network was awarded.

The Legislature appropriated $11.4 million last year to make up the difference. This year, Gov. C.L. (Butch) Otter included $10.5 million for the network in his proposed budget. The Legislature would have to approve that to keep the network running without the federal funds.

Wells said the Idaho Education Network, which operates under the governor's Department of Administration, is working on immediate and long-term solutions for the program.

When work was assigned to another group after first being awarded to Syringa Networks - one of the winning bidders on the 2009 contract that established the network - Syringa sued. A judge ruled in November that the $60 million contract is illegal.

Resolving the suit would bring the state closer to regaining federal funding this year. Like the school districts, the state's deadline for this year's rebate is March 26.

"We are in settlement discussions with Syringa," Wells said. "That is one of the many short-term solutions that we're looking at."

Earlier this week, officials announced the first step in rebidding the network's contract. A call for bids will go out in June, Wells said, with the expectation the contract will be awarded in late August. That move is aimed at restoring federal funding starting in July 2016.

Miles credits the Idaho Education Network with bringing reliable, high-speed Internet to the Orofino School District, but said the current situation could be expensive beyond replacing the broadband service.

The Orofino district received a federal rebate on additional services it purchased to link its outlying schools in Peck and Cavendish, he said. Because those services were administered through the state contract, the district could be liable for paying back the discount it received, he said, totaling between $50,000 and $60,000.

After passing a two-year levy last year, Miles said, the district has no way to add that kind of money to its budget anytime soon.

"At the end of the day, we need the (Idaho Education Network) and we really need that contract situation resolved," he said.

©2015 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)